Chris Brown’s smashing post-assault comeback

The media who are glossing over his past abuse send the message that assaulting women is little more than an inconvenience to your career.

"Don't f—k with my old bitch, it's like a bad fur/ Every industry n—— done had her/ Shook the tree like a pumpkin just to smash her/ B*tch is breaking codes, but I'm the password."

It might not be classy to trash-talk your ex, but trash-talking your ex after one of your main claims to fame is that you violently beat her up is apparently the formula for music chart success. The "smash her" line is the coup de grace here – an onomatopoeic punch to both warn other guys that his ex has had (too much) sex, and a trigger back to the fact Brown once, well, smashed Rihanna’s face in.

Chris Brown’s fifth album Fortune hit the UK chart number one spot this Sunday, marking the full rehabilitation of Brown’s career after his assault of then-girlfriend Rihanna on the evening of the 2009 Grammys. In the excitement, Brown’s fans took to Twitter en masse as #TeamBreezy to celebrate Brown’s return: amongst their assertions that "Chris Brown can hit me any time" and "I don’t know why Rihanna complained" were the more worrying – for seeming to be more legitimate – arguments that Brown is "sorry" (a claim invalidated largely by his continued classic-abuser positioning of himself as a victim of "smears") or that Brown was very young in 2009, and grew up in a tough environment (that may be so but I think “he had a bad childhood” grows old quickly when a grown man’s strangling you until you start losing consciousness).

Rihanna’s evolving response to what happened in 2009 was evoked to further brush Brown’s abuse under the carpet, particularly the fact she collaborated with Brown on a single earlier this year. And as Brown reaches number one, Rihanna is actually used to distract from what Brown did. This goes beyond Chris Brown’s attempts, in his recent music, to slut-shame Rihanna for having a sex life – because when you can no longer control a woman with violence, you at least have recourse to the good old-fashioned tactic of branding her a ‘slut’. It extends to the opprobrium Rihanna receives for the work she’s produced since the 2009 Grammys: while her "Love The Way You Lie" video, exploring the emotions of a toxic relationship, was accused of ‘soft porn-ifying’ abuse, her video for 2011’s "Man Down" was criticised for ‘glorifying’ female violence because it shows a woman’s response to rape. It’s Rihanna, not Brown, who faces the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ of public scrutiny.

This focus on Rihanna (particularly the "if she can forgive him why can’t you?" line familiar to anyone who’s dealt with domestic violence) and foregrounding of her ambiguous response distracts from the focus on the unambiguous brutality of Brown’s actions in 2009. After all, can you think of a less subtle act than smashing a woman’s face against a car window? How Rihanna deals with what happened is her prerogative, but that it should eclipse the bare facts of what Brown did seems convenient for abuse-apologist #TeamBreezy.

The debate about whether Rihanna’s musical collaboration with Brown ‘rehabilitates’ his public persona may seem like a dilemma unique to Universe Celebrity, but it is based on a mundane truth: domestic violence is both complicated and simple. It’s about unique intimate dynamics and it’s also about crime, clear lines unacceptably crossed. How the media handle the public and the private in this is crucial to what messages society receives about domestic violence. A decade ago, football fans made excuses for Paul Gasgoine’s violence against his partner on the grounds that they supported him as a footballer, not what he did off-pitch. A similar line is being evoked by #TeamBreezy, while Brown breaks the ‘privacy’ by continually publicly justifying himself. And this is perhaps the most frustrating thing about Chris Brown’s public rehabilitation: it utilises the patriarchal ‘private sphere’ switch-and-bait to both minimise and legitimise violence against women.

When you’re rapping about your ex in the vein of “don’t fuck with my old bitch, it’s like a bad fur”, the already-flimsy Gazza-argument that the work for which you’re renowned is removed from your ‘private’ violence seems unconvincing; yet in the media spotlight it’s Rihanna whose every move is fair game for criticism. The sham act of policing sexual propriety that manifests in the media’s mock-concern for Rihanna’s ‘dignity’ when she expresses herself sexually is not only part of a reactionary positioning female sexuality as dangerous (making yourself seem "available" will get you beaten up) but also plays into the machismo that legitimises Brown’s violence (after all, it doesn’t matter what you do to a whore, does it?).

As Rihanna is chastised for expressing her sexuality, Brown’s violence – and his lyrics relating to violence – are positioned variously as the preserve of the ‘private sphere’ and ‘artistic licence’. It’s a double-standard of privacy in favour of male violence "behind closed doors" that’s so embarrassingly obvious it puts Henri-Levy’s bizarre 2011 defence of Strauss-Kahn as a "friend of women" to shame.

Because that’s another thing about domestic violence: it’s behind closed doors. The recent domestic violence awareness campaign by make-up artist Lauren Luke was so powerful because it bound an everyday, intimate act – Luke putting on her make-up, which her fans are used to watching – with the fact that every day women use make-up to cover their bruises. Women’s abuse is largely hidden; saying its irrelevant when a public figure commits it contributes to this silencing.

Chris Brown’s comeback, and the media who are glossing over his past abuse, send the message that assaulting women is little more than an inconvenience to your career – you can turn it into bravado, along the lines of “bitch be breaking codes but I’m the password”, or, à la Strauss-Kahn, you can cite the "private sphere" defence: win win. Either way, it’s the right of women to live lives in which they can express themselves, safe from violence, that is lost.

Follow Heather McRobie on Twitter as @heathermcrobie

Chris Brown onstage during the 2012 BET Awards in Los Angeles. Photograph: Getty Images
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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit